What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a condition caused by inhaling too much silica over a long period of time. Silica is a highly common, crystal-like mineral found in sand, rock, and quartz. Silica can have deadly consequences for people who work with stone, concrete, glass, or other forms of rock.

Any level of silica exposure can result in silicosis. There are three types of silicosis:

  • acute
  • accelerated
  • chronic

Acute silicosis forms a few weeks or months after high levels of silica exposure. This condition progresses rapidly.

Accelerated silicosis comes on five to 10 years after exposure.

Chronic silicosis occurs 10 years or more after silica exposure. Even low exposure levels can cause chronic silicosis.

Silica dust particles act as tiny blades on the lungs. These particles create small cuts that can scar the lung tissue when inhaled through the nose or mouth. Scarred lungs do not open and close as well, making breathing more difficult.

The U.S. Department of Safety calls silica a “carcinogen.” This means that silica can cause cancer, including lung cancer.

Factory, mine, and masonry workers are at the greatest risk for silicosis because they deal with silica in their work. People who work in the following industries are at greatest risk:

  • asphalt manufacturing
  • concrete production
  • crushing or drilling rock and concrete
  • demolition work
  • glass manufacturing
  • masonry
  • mining
  • quarrying
  • sandblasting
  • tunneling

Workers in high-risk industries and their employers must take steps to protect against silica exposure.

Silicosis is a progressive condition, meaning it gets worse over time. Symptoms may start out as an intense cough, shortness of breath, or weakness. Other possible symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • fever
  • night sweats
  • weight loss
  • respiratory failure

Having silicosis increases your risk for respiratory infections, including tuberculosis.

You should seek medical attention if you suspect you have silicosis. Your doctor will ask questions about when or how you may have been exposed to silica. They can test your lung function with pulmonary function tests.

A chest X-ray can test for any scar tissue you may have. Silica scars appear on X-rays as small, white spots.

A bronchoscopy may also be conducted. This procedure involves passing a thin, flexible tube down the throat. A camera attached to the tube allows the physician to view your lung tissue. Tissue and fluid samples can also be taken during a bronchoscopy.

Silicosis doesn’t have one specific medical treatment. The aim of treatment will be to reduce your symptoms. Cough medicine can help with cough symptoms and antibiotics can help treat respiratory infections. Inhalers can be used to open up the airways. Some patients wear oxygen masks to increase the amount of oxygen in their blood.

You should avoid further silica exposure if you have silicosis. You should also quit smoking, as smoking damages lung tissue.

People with silicosis are at increased risk for tuberculosis (TB). You should be tested regularly for TB if you have silicosis. A physician can prescribe medications to treat TB.

Patients with severe silicosis may require a lung transplant.

Silicosis has become less common over time thanks to improved work safety measures. However, silicosis can still occur, and there is no cure for it at present. More than 100 people die of silicosis every year, according to the American Lung Association.

Your long-term outlook depends on the severity of your condition. Intense lung scarring can develop in both accelerated and chronic silicosis. Scarring destroys healthy lung tissue, reducing the amount of oxygen the lungs can transmit to the blood.

Workers can wear special masks called respirators to keep from inhaling silica. These masks may be marked for “abrasive blasting” use.

Water sprays and wet cutting methods reduce the risk of silica exposure. Workplaces should meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. This includes proper ventilation. Employers can monitor air quality at worksites to ensure that there’s no excess silica in the air. Employers must report all diagnosed incidents of silicosis.

Workers should eat, drink, and smoke away from dust that may contain silica. They should also wash their hands before doing any of these activities to clear their hands of any dust.